There's magic in Japanese folk houses, known as "minka."
I've visited many temples, shrines and castles, but I've never before felt or experienced quite what I did at the Japan Open-air Folk House Museum in Kawasaki.
Nihon Minka-en was created in 1967. Rapid economic growth from the 1960s caused old homes to be demolished at an alarming rate, and lovers of minka banded together and made a pitch for the city to set aside land to create the splendid open-air museum that today houses 25 folk houses brought from around the country.
There are many kinds of folk houses, for example, hillside terrace ones built in mountainous districts, coastal types built for families whose livelihood depends on fishing, and vernacular minka of castle towns, temple towns, post towns and port towns. While all of the buildings were fascinating in their own right, I was especially impressed with homes set on the water with boats moored underneath, and the "Ferryman’s Hut," or "sendo goya," which has large iron rings for logs to be passed through, enabling the whole structure to be lifted and transported.
Volunteers stand ready to help in several of the folk houses. They answer questions and offer insights, and they keep watch over the "irori" hearth. Guests are encouraged to sit by the fire and take in the atmosphere. As I was doing just that, a family visiting from California came, then an elderly solo traveler joined the group of strangers, and we all shared a lovely time chit-chatting.
It is dark inside a minka, even in the daytime. This creates an intimate space conducive to people connecting with one another. The warm, comforting glow of the irori brings people together, and with no artificial materials in and around the minka, the whole world and everything in it, people included, harmoniously blend into one.
During my visit, just about every person that I passed smiled and greeted me. While this is common when hiking in Japan, at least in my experience, it’s not every day that strangers acknowledge each other in such a way.
One woman stopped me and pulled a pink origami rose out of her bag. She held it out for me to take, adding, "This is for you!" Wow. I was caught off guard and flabbergasted. How sweet of her! Such a gesture would no doubt make an impression and touch guests from overseas.
The love for minka created this museum, and the warmth they exude makes people want to connect with others.
Yes, magic dwells in and around Japanese folk homes.
This article by Lisa Vogt, a Washington-born and Tokyo-based photographer, originally appeared in the Nov. 5 issue of Asahi Weekly. It is part of the series "Lisa’s In and Around Tokyo," which depicts the capital and its surroundings through the perspective of the author, a professor at Meiji University.